The staff of the Chicago Teacher Education Pipeline (CTEP) journeyed south to Decatur, Illinois, on Monday, September 25. Shannon Mittleman, Director of the Decatur Teacher Education Pipeline (DTEP), planned the visitor’s day to feature the educational and community work that happens in Decatur. It has been two years that Decatur Public Schools and Decatur community became the focus of a new extension of the urban teacher preparation program.

At the top of the agenda was a visit to French STEM Academy where Principal Julie Fane greeted the guests with an overview of the school and its history, including the rebranding and mission of the school to become a STEM school. Fane highlighted projects that students and teachers have worked on to address problems within the school community. Students have engineered prosthetics, designed a wheel-chair accessible playhouse, and planned “mini-pantries” outside the school and Old King’s Orchard Community Center.

“If a teacher will love my students, then I can teach them what they need to be successful in the classroom […] First, comes the love,” Fane explains, is her philosophy of education and how she approaches the mentoring of her teachers for the benefit of the students.

CTEP staff visited Eisenhower High School in Decatur, IL and were greeted with an inviting “campus” feel.

In addition, the CTEP staff was able to visit Eisenhower High School where Principal Amy Zahm discussed the Adopt-a-Senior program. As she describes, every staff member at EHS works with two to three seniors to make sure they are on track with their graduation requirements, filling out the FAFSA, and completing college applications. As a result of this program and the school building’s transformation to incorporate a “campus” feel, Eisenhower has witnessed a renewal of school spirit amongst students.

In addition to school visits, the CTEP staff was able to interact with four community organizations: The Good Samaritan Inn, Illinois Education Association, Crossing Healthcare, and the Northeast Community Fund.

The Good Samaritan Inn is a community supported soup kitchen that hosts the Mercy Gardens Project and feeds over 300 food insecure residents. The gardens are tended by clients of the Inn who are receiving focused job training in horticulture, culinary arts, or basic construction. Cindy Jackson, a manager at the Good Samaritan Inn, led a walking tour through the gardens and explained how the gardens began when staff at the Inn recognized the lack of access to fresh vegetables among the clients, which are now served in every meal the Inn prepares.

Decatur’s Good Samaritan Inn hosts the Mercy Gardens Project and feeds over 300 food insecure residents.

CTEP staff met at the local Illinois Education Association (IEA) Office where, Dani Craft, Executive Director of the Macon County Education Coalition (EdCo) and Amelia Finch, Director of the IEA, spoke about the Trauma-Informed partnership. Together, EdCo, the IEA, and the Regional Office of Education work to provide support to schools who wish to become “Trauma Informed.” Due to the multiple traumas that impact brain development and subsequently affect behavior in school and academic performance, the partnership works to teach educators what trauma-informed support looks like and the benefits for the classroom – and school, altogether. The Trauma-Informed Partnership is currently working with five pilot schools and providing intensive professional development and resources to help those schools better respond to trauma.

Tanya Andricks, CEO of Crossing Healthcare, met the group to tour the beautiful facility that provides medical care to people of all ages with or without medical insurance. Crossing Healthcare partners with the Macon County Health Department, Heritage Behavioral Center, and Decatur Memorial Hospital to meet the health care needs of the residents who are in need in Decatur. Crossing provides nutritional consultation, prenatal care, laboratory service, prescriptions, Zumba classes, and even “prescriptions” for fresh vegetables from the garden.

To finish the day, the Chicago staff met the inspirational Jerry Pelz, who has run the Northeast Community Fund for more than 40 years. The fund serves as a food pantry, provides free clothing, assists with car repair and utility bills, and provides counseling for families working to escape the cycle of poverty. The Northeast Community Fund also provides a “micro-finance” program which helps release clients from debilitating “Pay Day” loans.

The tour was similar to those provided to ISU students and professors who visit Decatur. The Decatur Teacher Education Pipeline works to overcome the negative reputation regarding Decatur. “Don’t live there and don’t send your kids to Decatur Public Schools,” they are told by well-meaning friends and colleagues, says Shannon. The image of a declining school system and crime-ridden streets is perpetuated through the real-estate listings that highlight “Mount Zion” or “Maroa-Forsyth Schools” and newspaper articles flashing mugshots of local shooting or burglary suspects.

Decatur has struggled over the past decades through the economic downturn and loss of manufacturing jobs. However, there are inspirational school principals such as Fane and Amy Zahm, and hard-working, empathetic community leaders such as Tanya Andricks and Pelz, who demonstrate the city’s spirit of generosity and faith. It is the hope that the Decatur Teacher Education Pipeline will give more people the chance to discover what Decatur has to offer.